Why are so many modern women shunning motherhood, foreshadowing a national disaster?
The western world—or much of it, anyway—celebrated Mother’s Day last weekend with the customary and much deserved paeans to mothers and motherhood and how much we are all indebted to them and how deeply we cherish the woman who served in this role on our behalf. Mother’s Day is observed in about 40 countries, not always on the same Sunday.
In the traditional media coverage in Canada, however, there was one astonishing departure this year. The Globe and Mail dared to raise what has become a widely unmentionable fact, notably that fewer and fewer women want to take on the motherhood job. It may be a highly honoured function, but women are becoming increasingly loath to fulfill it.
Which of course raises three questions: Why is this happening, how extensively is it happening, and what can be done about it? The answer to the first is known; the answer to the second is debatable; the answer the third is so wholly unknown that few people want to even think about it, let alone talk or write about it and make suggestions.
It was therefore left to the Globe’s Margaret Wente to raise the unsavoury topic, she being one of the few Canadian columnists whose views on any subject are not wholly predictable, like mine. Ms. Wente writes: ” For half a million years, children were a necessity, a duty and a pleasure – more or less in that order… Children were essential to replenish the tribe and contribute to the collective good. They were a source of labour and a guaranteed old-age plan. They were a way to honour God, to replicate your genes, and to perpetuate the family name.”
“But now, they are basically a lifestyle choice. And they compete with many other lifestyles, such as being a celebrated author. Children are not vessels for the altruistic investments of adults. They are means for the self-actualization of adults. Nor can you count on them as productive assets. They represent 25 years, or possibly a lifetime, of sunk costs, with an uncertain return. And now that women have found satisfying lives outside the home, the awful truth has begun to dawn: The maternal instinct can be overcome surprisingly easily.”
The results of this current rejection of motherhood are in themselves statistically shocking. “People used to think,” notes Ms. Wente, “that fertility rates would bottom out once they reached replacement level, which is roughly 2.1 births for each woman. Instead, they just kept going down. Today, Canada’s fertility rate is a miserable 1.6. Italy is at 1.4, Brazil at 1.9, Denmark at 1.7, Germany at 1.4, while Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are below 1.4. Unless these countries can persuade women to have more children (or encourage massive immigration), they’ll go broke. And then they’ll go extinct.”
Ms. Wente does not exempt herself as an instance of the ultimate cause of this foreseeable disaster. She writes: “I took my sweet time to settle on a mate because I too was fond of my career. By the time I got around to contemplating my options, they were gone. Childlessness wasn’t a choice, really. It was more or less an accident, just as it was for millions of other women who had no idea they were creating what the scholars call a ‘demographic transition.’ ”
Neither does she pretend to have an answer to the third question: What can be done about it? “I have no idea,” she writes, “and neither does anybody else.”
Well, perhaps she’s right. Perhaps nobody does have any idea what to do about it. However there is one pertinent fact that is directly relevant to this question and which she does not mention as a major cause of our rejection of motherhood– or of fatherhood as well–notably the intense desire of young people to have what they call “freedom.” By it, they seem to mean, the opportunity to lead a life that is totally unencumbered by duties, responsibilities and restraints of all kinds. Nothing is so likely to deny them this freedom as (a) marriage and (b) children. So they reject both. They live together without the unswerving commitment to permanence that a true marriage requires. and likewise they reject having children to escape the time, the money, the obligations and the enormous array of problems that children inevitably involve.
All this is in the quest of “freedom.” But the question is: do they find it? From my own limited observations, the answer is that they do not. They tend to drift from job to job, from bedmate to bedmate, from leisure to leisure, even from religion to religion. Then one day they realize that in so desperately seeking freedom what they discovered was a form of bondage from which they are now unable to escape. Their life has become purposeless because every purpose offered to them posed a threat to their freedom, so they rejected it.
Yet a way to freedom existed and was discoverable. “Perfect freedom,” says the old Anglican prayer book, lies in “the service of God.” Which might mean: Get married, have children, and actively seek servitude to God. Then one day you will realize that in abandoning all hope of freedom, you have actually acquired it.
Ted Byfield was founder and publisher of Alberta Report news magazine, general editor of Alberta in the Twentieth Century, a 12-volume history of the province, and general editor of The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years, a 12-volume history of Christianity. His column on education appears in The Christians.com, a web journal. He has recently authored two little books on modern pedagogy: Why History Matters and The Revolution Nobody Covered. You can order both copies here.